Vatican Announces Accord for Research on Inquisition

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican is opening up more of its archives on the Inquisition, as part of an unprecedented study of the Roman Catholic Church's attempt to control religious belief and its effect on medieval and modern history.

Under the project, announced yesterday, the Church will cooperate with Italy's Culture Ministry and universities to catalog documents about the Inquisition, in which people branded as heretics where killed.

Starting in the Middle Ages, the Inquisition was a systematic crackdown by Church officials intent on defending doctrinal orthodoxy. Catholics suspected of being heretics, witches, or others considered of dubious faith, including Muslims and Jews who had converted to Catholicism, were among the targets.

The Spanish Inquisition, founded in 1478, led to the expulsion of the country's Moors (Muslims) and Jews in 1492. It was one of Europe's most traumatic events.

"Such a vast project has never been attempted before, and it will be of great importance to respond to the new trends in international research of the control of religious ideas in medieval and modern Europe," a Vatican statement said.

The Vatican statement said the project would locate and catalog documents concerning both the Roman Inquisition and the Spanish Inquisition, and make them easily available to scholars.

The one-stop shop for Inquisition scholars would help them find documents in Church, state and private archives as well as those in universities around the world.

The decision to assist the project, in which the Church will turn the screws on the Inquisition, was the latest gesture to try to come to terms with the past.

The Vatican sponsored an academic symposium six years ago, and in 2000 Pope John Paul asked forgiveness "for errors committed in the service of truth through use of methods that had nothing to do with the Gospel."

That was shorthand for torture, summary trials, forced conversions and burnings at the stake. But the new project appears aimed at studying what the pope has called "wounds to the collective memory" that remained open for centuries.

The Vatican department involved in the project, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was known as the Inquisition until 1908.

The scholars will have access to a mass of details, some of them hair-raising.

Professor Agostino Borromeo, editor of books on the Inquisition, has said that heretics and witches who repented at the last minute were first strangled to death and their bodies burned rather than being burned alive.